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Conflict of interest disclosures get little attention

After Sen. Ulysses Currie was indicted on bribery charges in 2010 for supporting legislation favorable to a grocery store that paid him as a consultant, many reporters trudged over to the office of the legislative ethics advisor.

There, tucked away in a filing cabinet on the second floor of the Legislative Services Building, are conflict of interest filing by members of the General Assembly.

Legislators are required to file a variety of ethics forms, disclosing any apparent conflict of interest and either affirming their ability to consider legislation objectively or requesting a recusal from voting. Those who are employed by other state or local agencies are also asked to disclose their income.

“Usually [the forms] are a result of talking to me,” says William Somerville, the state’s Ethics Advisor. Somerville meets with legislators individually every year to advise on state law regarding conflicts of interest. After the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics reviewed disciplinary action against Currie this year, it recommended all members of the legislature show Somerville their tax returns.

(A bill unanimously passed in the Senate Thursday by Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, would further strengthen that rule by requiring the names of all members who meet with Somerville be sent to the presiding officers of both chambers.)

Joint Committee reviews forms

After conflict of interest forms are filed, they are distributed for review to members of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics who may decide to question a legislator further on an issue. In some instances the committee will also ask a legislator to excuse themselves from voting on a bill if they do not believe they can do so impartially.

Lawmakers’ folders reveal the variety of issues that can arise with an all-citizen legislature. Some files disclose ownership of various small businesses while others pertain to family relationships that extend into public life.

For example, Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, D-Howard and Baltimore County, provides a list of various organizations represented by his wife, a registered lobbyist. In the opposite chamber, Del. James Gilchrist, D-Montgomery, reports notable owned interest in companies ranging from Microsoft, Pepsi, and Verizon.

While some legislators’ folders are bulging with decades worth of documents dating back to the 1980s, others are completely empty.

In Currie’s case, there were just a few forms at the time of his indictment; two from 2009 disclosing his position as a board member for various organizations and another from the 1990s. There was no mention of his financial relationship with Shoppers Food Warehouse.

Although Currie, a Prince George’s County Democrat, was acquitted of the charges against him, he was censured by his colleagues in the Senate last month and his case has pushed state ethics reform center stage.

Putting the forms online

One of the leading advocates for reform has been Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery. With a bill he has proposed, Raskin hopes to place conflict of interest forms as well as legislators’ financial disclosure documents all online. Currently, those wishing to view the two different forms must travel to separate offices in Annapolis. Raskin, who chairs a Special Committee on Ethics Reform appointed by Senate President Mike Miller this year, argues that increasing public accessibility goes hand in hand with curbing corruption.

“If people fail to disclose information that is known to their colleagues, their friends, reporters — all of those people can notice with the stroke of a key that something important is missing,” Raskin says. “But if we make public disclosure truly public and meaningful then the costs and risks of nondisclosure go way up.”

As it stands today, it is difficult to say just how closely outside bodies are monitoring the various forms that go before the joint ethics committee. Although those documents may be viewed and photocopied by any member of the public, a quick glance at the visitor log shows only three people have looked at the files this session. Two of the three were reporters. Raskin believes this would change if documents were more readily available.

Frosh has one of largest files

One legislator who has remained consistent in his disclosures is Sen. Brian Frosh. The Montgomery County Democrat has one of the largest files in Somerville’s office. Frosh has been a member of the legislature since 1987 and is a practicing attorney with a range of clients.

Frosh admits that he has run into his fair share of conflicts of interest and says he tries to stay on top of them, but jokingly blames his frequent filings on paranoia. Frosh recently excused himself from voting on a bill to raise judges’ salaries because his father was a judge and Frosh believed the bill could benefit his mother, who receives his late father’s pension.

Despite his profession, Frosh adds he is unsure how any legislator’s conflict of interest folder would wind up empty. Says Frosh, “If you have a private life and a public life, I don’t see how you wouldn’t run into things.”

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